Yes, Dom Christensen had a kickoff return for a touchdown, two key important pass receptions and what may have been a touchdown-saving interception, but Forreston’s 34-28 upset win over defending state champ Lena-Winslow in the 1A semifinals on Nov. 17 was decided in the trenches.
That is where interior linemen Kilar Huenefeld, Sawyer Wild, Travis Wilson, Jacob Dye, Derek DeVries and Mitchell Heinz manhandled a more celebrated unit from Le-Win.
“Those were three D-I guys we were going against,” said Heinz, who was named all-state earlier in the week. “I have no idea how we did it. I think we wanted it more. Coach Zick was preaching to get it going early.”
One of those Le-Win standouts, Ian Kuehl, echoed what Heinz said.
“They came out with a lot more intensity than us and wanted it more,” Kuehl said.
That intensity was shown on the opening drive when Forreston took an 8-0 lead with only 1:16 gone.
Evan Kelsey burst free for 32 yards in the first play from scrimmage and two plays later, it was Bailey Cullor passing to Christensen for 32 more yards.
“We were going to throw on the third play no matter what,” Forreston coach Kyle Zick said. “We saw something on film that we thought we could take advantage of.”
Garett Badertscher, who was all over the field on both sides on ball, crashed over from nine yards out and added the PAT run for the early lead.
“We came out ready. It was amazing how we played the whole game,” Badertscher said.
Le-Win, which had running clocks in all three of its other playoff games, saw its first drive stall after a holding penalty and QB sack by Cailean Davids.
The Panthers did take advantage of a Christensen fumble to close to within 8-6 on a 1-yard touchdown run by Sean Ormiston after an 11-play 56-yard drive.
To show this was going to be different than the 29-0 deficit the Cardinals faced in the regular-season game, it was Forreston marching 67 yards on 13 plays to go up 14-6.
Cullor went over from a yard out, but more importantly, the Cardinal O-line had the vaunted front line of Le-Win reeling.
“In the first game, we hammered them on the line of scrimmage,” Le-Win coach Ric Arand said. “Forreston played physical against us this time. If you’re a small school and can do that, you’re going to win.”
Forreston was also aided by critical Panther errors, one of which occurred on the next pay from scrimmage. Quarterback Cade Benson fumbled and Sawyer Wild recovered for Forreston at the L-W 31-yard line.
“We made a lot of big plays and our crowd helped. It got us hyped up,” said Wild, who later would make a jersey-grabbing tackle to save a Le-Win kickoff returner from going the distance.
Forreston couldn’t make a first down, but Cullor nailed a coffin-corner punt to the 2-yard line. On the next snap, Benson never got the ball and Davids recovered it on the 1-yard line.
“You can’t win big games with mistakes like that,” Arand said.
Badertscher bulled over from his second TD and Forreston led 20-6 midway through the second quarter.
Just when it was looking good for the Cardinals, Le-Win began to exert its muscle.
With Ormiston (37-161 rushing) cracking off long runs, the Panthers closed to within 20-12 seven plays later. Then Forreston had its worse possession of the game.
A fumble, a penalty, another fumble and incompletion made it fourth and long, deep in their own territory. A poorly executed punt attempt resulting in Kuehl making a one-handed block and Le-Win getting the ball at the 1-yard line.
Ormiston easily scored on the next play and the large crowd at Lena had to wonder if the game was shifting into the Panther’s favor.
After another failed Cardinal drive, Le-Win got the ball back 43 yards from the goal line with 1:30 left in the half.
Advancing to the 6-yard line with five seconds left, Benson tried to find Isaiah Bruce in the open, but Christensen read the play and intercepted the pass.
“Holding them out of the end zone was huge,” Wild said.
The U of Iowa recruit and all-stater was bottled up all afternoon. He only had two carries in the second half and gained only 21 yards the entire game, this after averaging over 10 yards a carry this season.
“We weren’t getting to the perimeter with him,” Arand said.
Coming out in the third quarter, Le-Win put together a couple first downs, but was hurt by another penalty. However, they still seemed to be in control, as Keegan Gyland tackled Kelsey for a 5-yard loss and Forreston had to punt the ball right back.
Forreston's defense then rose up and forced a 3-and-out, as Ormiston, Gyland and Bruce were stopped for little or no gain.
Getting the ball back, Forreston had more trouble on offense and looked to be stopped on a third-and-10 incompletion. But, in the most harmful penalty of the game to Le-Win, the Panthers were flagged for roughing the passer.
That kept the drive alive, as did Badertscher gaining three yards on a fourth-and-2 at midfield.
The real game-changer, though, was Cullor calmly connecting with Christensen on a diving 28-yard pass play.
That set up a first-and-goal at the 5 and even a 5-yard procedure penalty didn’t keep Badertscher from scoring his third TD to make it 26-20. He also gave the Cardinals a little breathing room with the PAT run.
“They beat us off the ball all day long,” Arand said. “And, they made more big plays.”
Badertscher blew into the backfield and tackled Bruce for an 8-yard loss and Le-Win had to punt on its first drive of the fourth quarter.
“We put a lot of pressure on Garett. He makes a lot of decisions and checks on the field,” Zick said. “It’s like having another coach.”
Ormiston, who was one the stars of Le-Win’s semifinal win over Forreston in 2017, had plenty of more heroics in him, giving the Panthers a 28-28 tie with 4:26 left.
On a short field following a Cardinal punt, he had 27 of the 28 yards and his fourth TD and second PAT run.
With Le-Win squibbing the kickoff up the middle, Christensen made a play that will be etched in Cardinal football lore for years to come and also prompting a teammate on the sidelines to quip, ‘AJ who?’ in reference to his older brother and star of last year’s team.
“The first thing I thought about was ball security,” said Christensen, who picked the ball up at the 30-yard line. “Next, if I could get some yards, I would try to do that. Then, the field started to open up and it was 1-on-1 (with Parker Magee). I’m not a natural like my brother, but was able to make a move on him.”
That move put Christensen on a path down the Le-Win sideline with only Jack Setterstrom having a shot at him. It was no match, as Christensen ran untouched the rest of the way for the 34-28 lead.
“Not in a million years did I think this was possible,” Christensen said.
Le-Win still had plenty of time to launch a game-winning drive, but Ormiston was stopped by a whole host of Cardinal defenders on a fourth-and-2.
“These kids played their heart out,” Zick said. “You could tell they really wanted it with the passion and fire they showed.”
Forreston (11-2) will play Camp Point Central (12-1) at 10 a.m. Friday for the 1A state championship at the University of Illinois Memorial Stadium, the site of Forreston’s two previous state titles.
“I don’t know much about them,” Zick said. “They’re similar to us in the schemes they run. I don’t think they’ve seen a lot of Wing-T teams like us.”